By Carl Adamec
It could have been the most important fast break of Courtney Ekmark’s young life.
In March of 2011, a week after becoming the first freshman to earn Most Valuable Player honors in the Arizona state championships, the Saint Mary’s High of Phoenix standout was wrapping up a family vacation on the island of Bora Bora in the Pacific Ocean.
On March 11, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit off the Pacific coast of Japan. A resulting tsunami caused widespread devastation along Japan’s northeastern coast. A tsunami warning was issued for Bora Bora and an evacuation ordered.
“Our last night at about 4 a.m. there’s a loud banging on the door of our hut and all we’re thinking is ‘What the heck?’ ” Ekmark said. “This guy spoke in broken English and he told us there had been an earthquake in Japan and a tsunami was headed towards us. We had five minutes to get our passports and pack a bag to get to a boat that would take us to high ground.
“I was freaking out. You’re in the middle of the ocean. You grab some stuff and you run and you don’t know what you’re going to do. We got to the boat and we went to the main island and then we had to hike about a mile to get to the highest point so we could wait it out. You’re watching the water rise and sink, then rise and sink … You hope nothing will happen so you can get back home.
“I thought, ‘Well, at least I go out a winner.’ “
She can laugh about it now and not just because late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel and his girlfriend were on the same boat. Fortunately for the people on the island, what started as a 30-foot tsunami had dissipated to waves by the time it reached Bora Bora about two hours after the Ekmarks were evacuated. The damage was minimal and the family was able to leave as scheduled later in the day.
Somehow, though, she knew it would be fine. Just ask what the first thing she put in her backpack was as they were evacuated.
“I grabbed a book,” Ekmark said. “People make fun of this now … But on the plane ride over I worked on an English project and I wasn’t about to have it washed away. I didn’t know if I could get away with an excuse of losing it in a tsunami.”
No wonder she’s the No. 1-ranked student in Saint Mary’s Class of 2014.
“It is kind of crazy,” Ekmark said. “But it makes you think about the bigger picture and you don’t let small things bother you. I feel lucky and blessed that it all turned out OK.”
Since, Ekmark’s fast breaks have been limited to the basketball court for the team ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today.
Saint Mary’s (7-0) will take a 47-game winning streak into Friday night’s game at Camelback High. The reigning Division I state champion Knights will face perhaps their toughest challenge of the season next week when they look to defend their title at the Nike Tournament of Champions.
“We’re playing well and we’re on a roll and we’re excited about playing in the Tournament of Champions,” Ekmark said. “We always like to play the top teams. We always look forward to big games when we can be at our best when our best is needed.”
To say that Saint Mary’s is loaded is an understatement.
Sure the Knights have the University of Connecticut-bound Ekmark, a 6-foot guard rated as one of the top juniors in the country. They also have seniors Dominique Williams (UCLA), Danielle Williams (Michigan), Chantel Osahor (Washington), Brandee Walton (New Mexico State), and Chloe Johnson (San Diego State) headed to Division I programs.
They have won their seven games by an average of 42 points per game. No wonder they’re looking forward to the Tournament of Champions.
“That’s why kids come to Saint Mary’s, to play in those kind of games,” said Saint Mary’s coach Curtis Ekmark, who is also Courtney’s father. “We have kids that are very competitive and they want to play against the best. I compare it to the situation at UConn and that’s why for Courtney it’s the logical next step for her as she goes to the next level.”
Courtney Ekmark, who made her oral commitment to UConn last May, is off to a solid start her junior year. Saint Mary’s does not keep individual statistics as to emphasize team play.
But in the NGS Classic semifinals on Dec. 1, she had 33 first-half points before sitting out most of the second half of a 60-25 win over host Page. In the final against Chandler the following day, she netted 37 points in the Knights’ 76-50 victory.
“It was a great experience going into a hostile environment (at Page) like that,” Ekmark said. “They had thousands of fans there and it was a good test for us. It was fun. After the game we signed autographs for about half an hour. They’re crazy about basketball.”
Since Ekmark joined the program, Saint Mary’s is 65-2 and was ranked No. 1 by USA Today at the end of last season. She has played with most of the Knights since they won an AAU national championship when they were 9.
“We have fun and I am so lucky to have great teammates,” Ekmark said. “When things get tough we come together. Our team is unselfish and the best thing about our team is that we play as a team.
“We take things one at a time. It’s pressure for sure. Every team is going to play their best against us and give us their best shot. We have to be ready to play, but we have high expectations for ourselves. It’s pressure, but it’s a lot better than having no pressure and not being any good.”
While she spent the summer working on her overall game, Ekmark wanted to be a better rebounder coming into her junior year. Ironically, her dog is named Rebound.
“And she’s ferocious,” Ekmark said with a laugh.
So is her owner. Take one of her AAU games from this summer, for example.
Ekmark and the Arizona Warriors were in Washington, D.C. and faced a team from Indiana led by Notre Dame recruit Taya Reimer. During the game, Irish coach Muffet McGraw came into the gym and sat behind Reimer’s bench to cheer her on.
“We were down three or four at halftime and we needed a spark,” Ekmark said. “It was our third game of the day and we were tired. They were tired. You push through it. I hit a couple of threes, a couple of free throws. We won by like 10.”
A couple of threes and a couple free throws actually added up to 27 second-half points in the comeback win. But let her father finish the story.
“Courtney sees Muffet behind the bench at halftime, turns to her teammates, and she goes, ‘We’re not losing,’ ” Curtis Ekmark said.
The coach, who played collegiately at Marquette, said his daughter has matured physically since the end of last season and that has aided in her improvement.
“She has more size, she’s stronger, and she’s quicker,” Curtis Ekmark said. “Physically, she’s kind of a late bloomer. When she was younger she would get by with her basketball IQ and smarts. Her physical development has allowed her to do more things and be a better player.”
Her future teammates at UConn are on a break for final exams. The Huskies (8-0) play their next game Wednesday against Oakland (Mich.) at the XL Center in Hartford.
The time off allowed UConn coach Geno Auriemma to hit the recruiting trail. Among his stops was Phoenix to watch Saint Mary’s practice.
“It was nice of Coach Auriemma to come by and to have him here was exciting,” Courtney Ekmark said.
“Courtney feels it’s a privilege to be going to UConn,” Curtis Ekmark added. “Not only do they recruit great players, they play the right way. That’s important to her.”
Thanks to an experience that turned out well, Ekmark knows better than most what is important — on and off the court.